One needed reading glasses to find the handloom and handicraft sector in the Union budget fineprint. It was slightly step-motherly treatment of India’s second-largest employment sector. Especially since it’s the only sector (note the president’s speech earlier this month at the National Master Craftsperson Awards) to show 30 per cent growth during an economic slowdown.
During the elections, a newspaper advertisement had Narendra Modi speaking of new economic prospects for India’s craftspeople and weavers. Those working in this neglected sector were delighted at its inclusion in the promised “achhe din”. The 12th Plan had offered little to craftspeople beyond the old worn-out “schemes”, with review committees given no opportunity to re-evaluate their efficacy and impact, or to revamp them for changing times and markets.
Despite unanimity that livelihood creation and skill development were an urgent priority, India’s economists and planners seemed to see only urban solutions. They were blinkered to the opportunities the craft and handloom sector offers — not just to the millions of existing craftspeople and weavers, but the thousands of ancillary small-scale industries that can be created around craft — raw material cultivation, cotton, silk and wool spinning and dyeing, dry cleaning and packaging plants, wood seasoning depots, loom, forge and tool makers, etc — creating potential employment for the 13 million new job-seekers entering the marketplace each year.
They also ignored two other crucial points — one, that craft is a vital add-on to low agricultural incomes, the two activities operating in tandem; the other, hugely important, that strategic investment in the craft sector and its ancillary industries could prevent the relentless migration of unskilled rural youth to our already overburdened cities. One senior bureaucrat famously dismissed the sector, then under his watch, as a “sunset industry” that needed minimal short-term support until it presumably disappeared quietly beyond our aspirational horizon.
This seems short-sighted. At a time when we are trying to catch up with more advanced nations in most things, the Indian craft sector offers a skill pool that no other country can match. Why not treat craftspeople as assets and invest in them accordingly? It’s no happenstance that China, always a canny step ahead in the global marketplace, is casting a beady eye at our handicraft skills and regularly importing Indian craftspeople to train their own workforce.
So it was good to hear Modi say in February that “handicrafts reflect not only a nation’s heritage but the state of its economy”, and that linking handicrafts with tourism had huge employment potential. Refreshing, too, to hear him talk of “global branding and data mapping”, of “improving quality, technology and materials”, and “working capital and finance”, rather than the usual sad subsidies and sops.
None of this found space in the recent budget, however. Alas, the sector has received few of the new-initiative pigeons to whom Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has generously scattered Rs 100 crore grain. It is good news that Jaya Jaitly’s brainchild, a Hast Kala Akademi, has received Rs 30 crore. Small in itself, this belatedly recognises that Hast Kala should be on par with Lalit Kala, Sahitya Kala and Sangeet Natak Kala in India’s cultural consciousness.
A handloom museum and trade facilitation centre is planned in Varanasi, and six more textile clusters — in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir — have received a total of Rs 200 crore, notwithstanding that many find the Handloom Cluster Development Scheme deeply flawed in structure and implementation. Kashmir has received a much-needed amount of Rs 50 crore for craft development. But one wishes that the proposed centres of excellence for agriculture, and the many new IITs and IIMs, had found matching counterparts where young craftspeople could hone their design, entrepreneurial and management skills and be accepted, economically and socially, on par with skilled professionals. At present, they are leaving the sector in droves.
In his February speech, Modi took a side sweep at the “hundreds of cases replete in history” where “imperialists” had tried to finish off India’s arts and crafts by cutting the thumbs of Indian craftsmen after establishing their expansionist rule. Whatever the historical truth of this, we should now concentrate on ensuring our present-day planners, politicians and bureaucrats don’t finish off Indian crafts and craftspeople altogether. Not just lopping off fingers, we seem to be intent on metaphorically choking them to death.
We need to actively invest in the sector’s strengths, not subsidise its weaknesses. Give it access to the same R&D, credit, raw materials, technology, education, social security and infrastructure that other growth sectors of the economy automatically get.
Meanwhile, craftspeople will have to look elsewhere in the budget for opportunities. For instance, they should benefit from the Rs 1,000 crore being spent on five new tourism circuits, and presumably some portion of the Sardar Patel statue’s controversial Rs 200 crore will go to the craftspeople involved in its making.
The writer is chairperson and founder-member, DASTKAR Society for Crafts & Craftspeople